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Predicting Success in Sales Roles – Lessons from Moneyball

Predicting success

richardsonsalestraining4 October 2012Blog

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This post in an excerpt from the Chally Group’s white paper “Challenging the SEC’s Challenger Selling Model," by Howard P. Stevens, Chairman, Chally Group Worldwide.

What makes a salesperson successful? Is it charisma? Product or industry knowledge? Experience? Tenacity? Ability to “challenge” customers?

If you’re going to improve your business, it’s not enough to know that some people are successful — you need to know specifically what has the greatest (and least) impact on success so that you can apply that when managing talent among your sales force. Simply guessing or relying on generalisations based on “Survey Monkey” research leaves too much room for risk.

Success in sales roles is predicted based on the presence of the salesperson’s capacity to deliver specific skills, abilities, and competencies associated with the requirements of a very well-defined sales role. Even within the same sales organisation, a strength in one sales team could be immaterial in another if their roles and targets are different.

The best-selling book Moneyball presents a valuable lesson for sales organisations regarding effective talent management. Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A’s, knew the traditional metrics for selecting players wouldn’t cut it. Scouts had long employed subjective, nonquantitative measures like, as one of the scouts put it, “he has an ugly girlfriend, and that means no confidence.” He evaluated his players and potential trades using specific dispassionate metrics rather than the players’ reputations and surface skills. In doing so, he turned a franchise of perennial losers into contenders and helped to reshape how professional baseball teams are managed.

Today companies must dismiss the fuzzy intangibles and make sales selections scientifically as Beane did. He used statistical measures and, most importantly, searched for hitters, not home run superstars, to win the game.

We advocate the same statistics-based methods as demonstrated in Moneyball to help organisations predict sales success.

Just as baseball has very specific roles — consider that among pitchers you have starters, long-inning specialists, setup men, and closers — sales has many different and unique roles. And with sales, as you make the move to more complex organisations, clients, products, and services, you will find just as in baseball that not many people can successfully play multiple roles effectively.

For example, one of our clients sells the exact same products to three unique customer types: retail, hospitals, and doctors and dietitians. Our client was adamant that product knowledge was critical to sales success for one of these vertical groups. Although we do not measure what a salesperson knows about the product and its features and benefits, we do measure a person’s desire to be a credible resource to their client about their product or services. Through this profiling process, we discovered that nearly all 500 salespeople on their team scored above average on this competency. However, there was NO difference among high, average, and low performance, which indicates that having more of that competency does not predict higher success.

As we moved to the next business unit, this competency did show up as predictive, however. As we completed the process for all three business units, only one competency was found to be common among all three groups.

Even though all three units sell the same products, the salesperson’s ability to support the unique customers require very different profiles with unique competencies, skills, and behaviours. This proves the point that success in sales differs at the industry, company, product, and customer level — one size (as defined by the Challenger Model) does not fit all.

For sales, in order to determine the select group of skills that statistically differentiates top and bottom performers for a specific position, a profile comprised of the differentiating skills must be created. The profile must leverage a proven statistical process or methodology that will define what high performers have that low performers don’t.

This process is far more rigorous than simply interviewing a couple of high performers and saying they do “X” and that that should be the future model. Rather, it is a process based on science that incorporates three key elements:

  • Qualitative: Information is gathered about the duties, activities, and responsibilities of those in the focus position. Individual differences in terms of knowledge, skills, abilities, and other attributes are also explored and distinctions among high performers and low performers described.
  • Quantitative: Your current sales team completes the Chally assessment and is scored against work-related skills measured by the assessment. These data are then merged with actual performance data from the client that includes high, average, and low performers. All three categories are critical to understanding the difference between high and low performers.
  • Integration: Skills identified as most relevant by quantitative and qualitative elements are analysed for job fit and review of adverse impact analysis.  This becomes the predictive profile that identifies the significant attributes that differentiate performance.
This process will then define, at the role level, those elements that are common across all roles and those that are unique and differentiating to each role. The key to successful selection is in identifying the right competencies and behaviours required for a particular job and using those as a basis for predicting success. The hard part is identifying what exactly those are.
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